Sunday, July 24, 2005

Perspicuity and/or Intensity

Leaving the question of whether it is the business of philosophers or poets to write them on the side, consider the way in which texts may be said to be perspicuous or intense. Wittgenstein, following Frege, strove for the "perspicuous presentation" of his remarks (PI§122), while Pound looked for the "first intensity" in his presentation of details (cf. Gaudier-Brzeska). We can choose to ignore Wittgenstein's fame as a philosopher and Pound's fame as a poet. We can then look at the operations that produce perspicuity and intensity in themselves, regardless of whether they make for essentially philosophical or poetical writing. I think we will find, however, that intensity in writing is characteristic of feelings that are contained by precise emotions and that clarity is characteristic of thoughts that are informed by precise concepts. (This is note quite as rigorous as I would like it to be: it makes it look like some writing "expresses feelings" when all it can really ever do is "present emotion". It is the experience of having one's feelings contained by these exceptionally precise emotions, duly noted in a good poem, that I am here calling "intensity" or, with Burke, "enthusiasm".)

Experience is intense and clear in proportion to the precision of our suffering.

In his treatise on the sublime, Edmund Burke proposed that there is a tradeoff between these two experiences and therefore a sort of economy in the allocation of resources to the operations that produce them in writing. Clarity is the enemy of enthusiasm, he said. A text can be either perspicuous or intense; it will be obscure in the degree to which it is intense, languid to the degree to which it is clear.

But nothing of course guarantees that a languid text will be clear. Burke's argument is that the introduction of clarity to a presentation will, all things being equal, work against whatever efforts one might be making to foster enthusiasm. In fact, I think a sober assessment of Wittgenstein's work will bear this point out. His remarks are crystalline in their clarity (for the most part), but there is nothing (besides the compulsion for clarity itself) that drives your reading forward. There is an enormous amount of languor in the Investigations. That is not say that there are no moments of intensity in that work, only that these are not, as it were, its defining moments.

With equal and opposite force, the same can be said of the Cantos. These are largely an obscure, intense reading experience. There is, to be sure, a characteristically "modern" intention in them, which would make itself clear. But again and again we see it subordinated to the first intensity (as was already the case with "In a Station of the Metro").

[For those who are keeping track at home: truth is the first virtue of belief; justice is the first virtue of desire; perspicuity is the first virtue of thought; intensity is the first virtue of feeling. The precision of objects fosters (but does not guarantee) truth; the precision of subjects fosters justice; the precision of concepts fosters clarity in suffering (perspicuity); the precision of emotions foster enthusiasm in suffering (intensity).]

It is important to keep in mind that we are here working with texts and the processes that produce them. Clarity is a virtue of text, but so is intensity, and you often end up having to choose. What you are choosing is basically whether you want the text to contribute to the precision of suffering in thought or in feeling.

Maybe this still divides experience too much into heart & head for some writers. It seems obvious to me that we sometimes use our heads, and sometimes our hearts. If we don't concentrate our efforts our compositions will suffer. And that's our job: to suffer precisely. That's my hunch, anyway.

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